In The New York Times Book Review, Garrison Keillor admitted:
“As for putting books down without finishing them, I do that all the time. When you pass 70, you are no longer obligated to finish what you’ve started, not a book, not a meal, not even a sentence.”
Is Keillor saying that getting old is something to look forward to? This what-the-hell attitude–I don’t have time for this. Next! I can imagine walking away in mid-sentence. “As I was saying….” But this might be more concern for senility and not just newly-found orneriness.
And is it possible to abandon the clean-plate imperative drummed into me from childhood? Not only were me and my siblings harangued by the plight of starving children in China, we six children were competing for that often non-existent extra piece of pie or seconds of stew. As a large family we certainly didn’t starve, but we were a ravenous group.
Maybe at 70, I too might be more acutely conscious of my time left on the planet. And less patient with reading something difficult to understand or just not my style. But with so many good books out there, maybe I should adopt this attitude now and not wait. Time is already too precious.
Or I can invoke my mantra: Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
Perhaps Keillor’s comment stirs me most poignantly as a writer and a reader.
As a reader, I usually feel compelled to read a book to the end. Most of the time, I’m happy that I continued reading even though it didn’t engage me in the first 20-30 pages. Some works have a slow start, but come together and take hold of me eventually.
I remember trying to read Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Some of the slaves’ experiences were so visceral, so intense that I had to put it down. Twice. I finally finished it when it was assigned for a class–and happily so. The instructor’s notes and insights helped immensely and just having others grappling with the the narrative and characters fortified me to handle the story. A communal spirit really made a difference.
Sometimes I put a book down and go back to it later. Sometimes I don’t. We all do this, right?
As a writer, I have started essays and stories that sit unintentionally abandoned in my files. No problem there in not finishing them as I became involved in other projects that I did complete. But what to do with these bits and pieces?
I imagine most writers have this problem. Perhaps it’s not really a problem, but just part of the process of writing. We have to start somewhere. I know I’ve started a piece of writing to experiment on something like dialogue. Or I wanted to see what it feels like to construct a fictional character. These were exercises.
Other times I started writing a piece, then discovered a kernel of an idea I was more interested in pursuing, and took off in that direction. Writing is often about discovery. Like starting a piece and having a sense of where it’s going only to find out it needs to go somewhere else. This is the joy of writing. Letting the writing take you somewhere unexpected.
This is the practice of writing: not everything will be finished. Not everything will be good or even close to good. This is life.